SciDev.Net celebrates its tenth anniversary this week — a chance to reflect on a decade of achievement, and the challenges that lie ahead.
A tenth birthday is a significant event for an organisation. It's a time to reflect on past achievements, however modest some may have been. More importantly, it marks a milestone towards full maturity, and provides an opportunity to look towards the challenges ahead, assess the steps needed to reach them, and plan how to develop the skills necessary to do so.
SciDev.Net was born ten years ago this week. In my first editorial, posted on 3 December 2001, I wrote that we intended to "empower both individuals and communities in developing countries, increasing their ability to ensure the effective contribution of science and technology to sustainable development, and thus to the general improvement of health and economic wellbeing".
I'd like to think that we have made significant progress towards meeting that promise. Science is now firmly placed at the heart of the international development agenda, as we hoped it would be. It is also increasingly recognised within developing countries as an essential tool for social improvement.
But the challenges remain significant. In too many countries, scientific capacity remains underdeveloped, opportunities for technological innovation — for example in health and agriculture — are neglected, the benefits of science remain unfairly distributed, research evidence is ignored by policymakers, and the public has too little say on which science-related developments are implemented, and how this is done.
Over the last ten years, we have stimulated debate and highlighted progress on how these challenges can be met through our articles, commentaries and efforts to boost science journalism in the developing world.
Moves in the right direction
The good news is that trends are pointing in the right direction. For example, over the past decade many developing countries have made a significant commitment to increasing their scientific efforts, not least the ambitious promise by African heads of state in 2006 to boost country spending on research and development to one per cent of gross national product.
The idea that good (and relevant) science is not enough has also taken root over this period. Many developing countries now accept that the successful application of science to social needs requires a political will to support innovation. They also realise that building scientific capacity depends heavily on their ability to create genuine partnerships with research institutions in the developed world.
This has been complemented by a willingness of many aid agencies, in particular the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), to put science funding back on their agendas after two decades of neglect in favour of policies that focused on market-driven reforms, or direct poverty alleviation.
International agencies such as the World Bank have made similar moves. In the world of private philanthropy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been leading the way in promoting support for science-based innovation — in vaccines, for example — as one of the most effective ways of achieving development goals.
Finally, all this has been reflected in the growing dynamism of science journalism across the developing world. This was illustrated, for example, in the large developing country representation at this year's World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, with which we were delighted to have been a major partner.
No room for complacency
SciDev.Net has played an important role in these developments over the past decade, not only by acting as a reporter and commentator, but also by stimulating awareness of what is happening across the 'science for development' world, helping to crystallise ideas about the need and opportunities for action.
But we cannot be complacent. As Romain Murenzi, the new executive director of the Academy of Science of the Developing World (TWAS), remarked during the World Forum on Science in Budapest last week, progress has been uneven, with some developing countries benefiting much more than others. "The North–South gap in scientific capacity is narrowing on a global scale," he told a SciDev.Net reporter. "But the country-to-country gap remains as wide as ever."
Furthermore, the willingness of politicians to listen to scientific evidence, although growing, remains patchy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate on global warming, where the scientific consensus on the need for urgent action to limit carbon emissions is not reflected by political commitment to enact tough measures.
And new political and financial pressures are also taking their toll. These range from potential cuts in the scientific activities of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), resulting from the US reaction to the decision to admit Palestine as a member, to reduced funding for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis — just as significant research results are offering new opportunities for effective intervention.
Aims for the decade ahead
Such challenges make informed reporting and authoritative commentary even more important than ever.
Over the past ten years, awareness has increased about the need to promote science for development, and the various ways in which this can be achieved (including how the public can be involved). Now, attention needs to shift to overcoming the ideological, financial and political barriers standing in the way of progress.
The same is true of science journalism, and science communication in general. Few would argue against the need for good science journalists, and scientists who are willing and able to communicate with the non-scientific world. The task now is to foster the environment that will allow both to happen.
Developments in information and communication technologies, such as social media, open up new opportunities that can improve all types of science communication, and the dialogue between science and society in particular.
These are some of the challenges that lie ahead for SciDev.Net over the next decade. Our aim is to continue building our user base across the developing world, develop new ways of delivering our content to those who find it useful, establish new partnerships with those who share our goals, and secure new sources (and forms) of financial support for what we do.
None of this will be easy. But no doubt the next ten years will see the same dedication and commitment from our staff, contributors and readers. When SciDev.Net looks back on its 20th birthday, I hope it will be to celebrate its contribution to even greater progress in promoting science for development than it can do today.